Sunday, March 20, 2011

1st annual Open Water Safety Conference in San Francisco, CA

The Utah LMSC sent me to attend the first annual Open Water Safety Conference this weekend.

I learned a TON of stuff and took LOTS of notes, so I'll try to organize it here chronologically.

Friday afternoon/evening:

Steven Munatones
When I arrived in the hotel to check in I immediately saw Steven Munatones, the conference director and the founder of Open Water Source and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, talking with others in the lobby.  I must admit I was star struck.  This guy is THE man for all things open water internationally.

I checked in to my room and was dying of hunger!  I ate at a restaurant at the hotel.  Man was it expensive!  Had some Salmon and THREE baskets of bread which finally filled me up.

  • At 7pm I met in one of the conference room and immediately saw Kara Robertson, although we've only met a couple times briefly I had to quickly check her name tag cause there were so many people and I wasn't sure it was her.  Kara Robertson is the race director of Slam the Dam and we discussed several things.  She asked a few questions about the race and how we were doing.  She mentioned that National Recreation and Parks Society was very helpful to her in providing services.  She said that the organization also has a Utah Branch which is found here.  Thanks Kara, I'll definitely get in touch with them!

Saturday morning:  

When I found my seat a couple minutes later Rob Dumouchel came in and sat next to me and we discussed several things.  He reminds me alot of my friend Ray Holt.  He's a really cool guy, down to earth and humble about his role in the OW world, which is actually pretty big.  There were a couple people who came up to him while we were talking and shook his hand and introduced themselves.  Also later on in the conference when they were showing a video of the Big Shoulders 5K, they showed a short clip of him being interviewed and he raised his hands while people were clapping and cheering at his presence on-screen.  I admire that guy. He's so outgoing, something that is a HUGE weakness for me.  Anyhow, the Saturday Morning conference started with......
  • Shelly Taylor-Smith started out the conference with some background of her achievements that were pretty inspiring:
  • She said there were four characteristics in having a winning mindset:  focus, attitude, self belief, no excuses
  • Shelly Taylor-Smith
  • "The most important physical part of your body is the six inches between you ears."  - this is so true.  This lady didn't have a "Michael Phelps" type swimmers body.  She was probably about 5'9" and didn't have long gorilla arms, and yet this lady is a seven time world champion in open water swimming.  She slaughtered world records and even beat all competitors (including the leading man) in open water championship races.
  • She discussed the struggles that athletes face and mentioned that once she was getting sting after sting from jellyfish and her coach said to her (and I love the Australian accent): "Shelly!  The jellyfish isn't an enemy, they just love you and are trying to kiss you."  Attitude and mindset can totally change how you perform.
  • She mentioned that one of the best run swim races, including having very high safety standards was the "Lake St. John" 32K event. She said that they have a Dr. at the finish tent and they personally check off every single swimmer afterwards to make sure they are checked out of the race without any medical problems.  Very interesting.  She swam that event several times and had to get pulled out once.  She passed out in the water and the boat pilots saved her life.  Here is a world class athlete and even her life was saved from drowning by some very attentive people on her boat.  Two years later she was almost pulled out, but her coach knew she was fine.  She emphasized that having a support crew that is VERY familiar with the swimmer and their stroke is critical to have.  She wasn't in trouble, but just needed to be pushed by her coach and was able to finish the race.
  • She mentioned that in order to have a successful event, you almost need to have a "Spirit Director".  Someone who is responsible to talk with athletes, to get everyone excited and ramped up for a fantastic event.  You can't have the race director do everything and this role is great for someone else who is a great people person.  (I immediately thought of Kris Edwards, that girl is so outgoing and friendly with everyone, she would do great and I think she would LOVE to be in that role) 
  • Finally she mentioned her training when she was in world class form was roughly 100K/week (62 miles) and 25K (15 miles) on Tuesdays/Thursdays.  That is very impressive!  
As a side note, at the next break I bought two of Shelly's books "Dangerous When Wet".  One for me and one for Josh.  I told her of my mission in Brisbane and how I loved the country and wished I could have spent some time in the water, but the mission rules prevented me from doing so.  I told her I'd love to go back and do the Rottnest race in Perth, but that would be much further down the road.  She's a nice woman and a great speaker.  A little long winded and often goes on tangents, but she spunky and very well qualified, and that makes her great!

During one of the breaks I also met and talked with Bob Needham.  He swam the 10K at Deer Creek last year (and did a good job swimming along with and pushing my swimming buddy, Josh).  But I never got a chance to talk to him last summer, he had to rush off to another 10K swim the next day!  He's a nice guy and has plans to swim Catalina this summer.

  • Next up was Chris Brewster, President of the US Lifesaving Association. The US Lifesaving Association works with waterfronts all along the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They're much like the Red Cross is for Pool Lifesaving. They're the organization for training, and standards for beachfront life saving skills.

    • I was really impressed with the way Chris spoke. Very confident man and intelligent. He mentioned a stat that I had to make note of. When the LA Triathlon was held, there 160 rescues from the water. That is alot of saves! He mentioned that with the growth of Triathlon and more people wanting to do it, that there are more and more people who really don't know how to swim well entering the water. The quality of the overall athlete is going down as it becomes more and more popular. He wasn't criticizing the participants, but that is his observation that safety is becoming even more paramount as more people take interest in multi-sport and want to participate.
    • He said that 1 in 18 million visitors to the beach in the United States in 2009 involved a drowning.  1 in 18 million.  That's actually pretty dang good I think considering the number of people who visit the beach.  Using that rate, he said there would only be 1 death in every 60,000 swimming events.  But unfortunately that is not the case.  
    • Oftentimes the athletes aren't concerned for their own safety.  It is the Event organizers who need to be more concerned for the safety of the swimmers than they sometimes are for themselves.  This reminded me of the Deer Creek cancellation a couple years back and how I was very bitter about being taken out of the water and how some feelings of resentment I had towards those who put me in a boat while I wanted to be swimming (even though my support  boat crew was getting hypothermia).  That statement is pretty true.  Oftentimes the athletes are so trained in to "being tough" and enduring that they don't know when to call it quits especially when safety is involved.  He mentioned that someone refused to be saved and said, "I really need to get the T-Shirt".  Funny! (but not really).
    • He suggested that we all review the USLA Open Water Manual which is a great resource for Open Water.  I just ordered that book.   He said "you don't want to be that lifeguard who failed to make an appropriate save".  That hit my like a brick as it made me recall a very vivid nightmare I had several years back that involved me being a lifeguard and someone died because of my negligence.  You can read my sharing of that nightmare here.   
    • He suggested that if we have a swim that is along the beach that we have lifeguards stationed along the beach rather than just boat support in the water.  That made me think about the GSL swim.  It really would be a good idea to have some lifeguards along the one mile course.  Josh and I will have to discuss this and the idea of getting lifeguard volunteers for the day along the beach.  The only concern I have, is that most lifeguards in Utah don't have the waterfront training, but water park training.  When I was a kid and took lifeguard training it included waterfront stuff along with how to use a rescue board, but the Red Cross has separated that out now and don't teach it for pool lifeguards, so there may be an issue with that.  But in my opinion, the course is close enough to the beach along most of the course that a rescue board would be overkill anyway.  But that's a topic we'll need to discuss and come to a decision about.  
    • This thought came to my mind while he was speaking which is essentially what he was saying, "When the athletes sign that waiver signing the safety of their lives into our hands, that isn't just a free pass, but should be treated with great responsibility to take ALL efforts to ensure their safety".

  • Ralph Goto from Hawaii then went next. He is the Ocean Safety Administrator and served as the Lifeguarding overseer for the Waikiki Rough Water Swim.

    • The waikiki rough water swim is 2.4 miles long. In 2010 there were 1045 swimmers, and only 600 finished. 361 rescues were made. The tides and currents in this race and crazy and really quite a few swimmers are unprepared for the event. He said that there should be more emphasis on emergency support at the back cause thats where those who struggle will be. Not that you ignore the front of the pack, but most of the trouble will be near the back of the pack.
    •  He mentioned that he had a bunch of radios for communication, but someone forgot to charge the batteries the day before so the day of the event they had all these radios, but no power for them, which was a big problem.  
    • EVERY swimmer needs to be accounted for.  One person had quit, and left the course and wasn't accounted for many hours after the event was over which was quite a concern for all the rescue and race organizers.

  • Lt. Greg Buchanan spoke next and some points he made were:

  • Please USE RADIOs

    • The Incident Command System (ICS) needs to have someone who is an expert in safety and in emergency response.  The race director shouldn't take on that role, it should be a separate person who is expert in that area and can provide recommendations pre-race on safety procedures, as well as race operations to ensure safety of the athletes.   
    •  Whenever a rescue is made, it takes away from the existing personnel, so just like in lifeguard training where you have overlapping coverage, someone needs to jump in and take the place of the rescuers position to ensure continuous safety because those still in the race won't push pause for the incident to complete.  
    •  Once the event is over it is critical that all the leaders of the race get together to do a post-mortem meeting to discuss the execution of the event to document what went really well with the event, what could be improved on, and what failed.  Without this meeting you can't really identify for the next year what weaknesses can be strengths.  Athletes who fail to do this after their races don't progress and improve either, so the race itself needs to be improved and executed each and every year.
     Chris Sheen - Race Director of the Big Shoulders 5K suggested:

    • Give the participants instructions on how to be safe.  Tell them to recognize when they are in trouble and to let their support boat and lifeguards know when they need help.  
    • The race should have two ambulances (maybe more depending on the number of participants).  Hot Chocolate should be on hand to reverse the effect of hypothermia.  
    • Water entry/exit accountability.  Chipped timing is great for swimmer accountability
    Eric Juneau - Race Director of the Lake St. Jean race in Canada.  This is the race that Shelly Taylor-Smith went on and on about so it's a good one.  This guy had a very heavy french accent and at times was difficult for me to understand him, but here are some points I was able to understand him making:

    • He reiterated the need to have a post-mortum meeting afterwards to review and improve
    • The top priority of the race directory is to know where all of his swimmers are.  He said he requires each support boat to have a radio and GPS.  He keeps in contact with them on a frequent basis to know their position and keep updated.  (Granted his race is over 15 miles)
    Jim Wheeler - President of Total Aquatic Management.  He has over 30 years of lifesaving experience.  He had this to say:

    • Each volunteer needs to totally understand their role.  The kayakers needs to be there but not right next to the swimmers getting in the way.  Good surveillance by the kayakers and lifeguards.  Teach them how to recognize those in trouble.   Someone who rolls over on their back more than 3 times is someone to watch out for.
    • Controlled starts with waves from a safety point to make sure the rescuers aren't overloaded.  Also make sure that there are lots of blankets in hand in case of hypothermia.
    The next session was an open forum among a panel of many different experts and here are some of the points I found particular interest in and made notes of:

    • What can the athletes do to best prepare for their races? The skill level is going Down as the popularity increases.  They need to be educated on how to listen to their bodies and respect their limits - Shelly Taylor-Smith
    • Be aware of their abilities before the race starts.  If it is a small race and you can contact them and ask them about their training, you can get a feel for whether they are ready for it or not.  You may want to hold clinics leading up to the race so the athletes can become more familiar with the course as well as encourage training in the water where the event will be held - Marcia Cleveland (USMS Long Distance Chair and Dover Solo Author)
    • First Aid tents at 1/3rd, 2/3rd and at finish.  Use volunteers to assist in applying sunscreen as well as provide hot chocolate and blankets to those who are struggling at the end with hypothermia - Kate Alexander (Safety Officer of the Flowers Sea Swim in the Cayman Islands)
    • The race needs to be organized like NASA where you have different systems that needs to all be in agreement on a "Go, No Go situation" with the Safety Chair at the leading position.  If Safety is a No-Go, then there isn't a need to keep accessing the situation, that is the first priority that needs to be fixed. - Dale Petranech (Honorary International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame)
    • The event should list on its website, the event's emergency action plan and safety standards.  That way the athletes can be aware of the protocols and efforts that are being made for safety.  The event should also list out to the participants the minimum level of skills that they expect the athletes to have in order to complete the event.  Hold clinics for those especially for those who might have reservations and are struggling.  - Lt. Buchanan 
    • In the event that an event is cancelled for safety reasons, should participants be given money back?  Most of the panelists and even many from the audience said "No" because much of the funds have already been spent.  A few thought that maybe giving a discount for the next year's race would be a good idea.  Especially if not all of the funds have been spent (For instance the awards won't need to be purchased for the next year and you can use them the next year).  I like the idea of doing a discount.  That would not leave the participants with a bad taste in their mouth about the event (even though it really isn't the event's fault if there is an unforeseen safety issue such as weather or lightning)
    • Someone said the word "Shark" and a few people said that word is not to be mentioned in OW circles.  But replaced with "Seaweed" as the dirty word replacement.  Some discussion around Shark Shields, and Steve Munatones spoke up about them sometimes shocking the swimmer.  It's a band the swimmer wears that puts out an electric shock whenever a shark gets close.  But if someone in the boat inadvertently touches the swimmer, it can shock the swimmer and isn't very pleasant.  
    I met with Marcia that evening in the Hall and shook her hand.  She mentioned that someone told her of my 40K swim this last summer and asked me what in the world I was thinking.  Haha.  She's definitely the type of person who could appreciate the difficulty of something like that and it felt good that she expressed that.  I must admit I was seriously star struck with her and very bashful.  

      Next panel discussion was on Lake Swimming:

      • Karen Reeder - Race director the USMS National Championship based in Colorado Springs, CO mentioned that sea level swims really help out swimmers who train in higher elevation.  She noted that her swimmers in Colorado averaged a 7 second cut in their times for a 500 SCY swim, and about 32 seconds for a 1650 SCY swim.  Nice!  At least for those who train in higher elevation and go down.  Not so for those who train at sea level and then compete at higher elevation.
      • Karen also was also asking some experts on water quality testing if they test for the parasite that causes swimmers itch.  Apparently the parasite is quite a problem in the lake that she does her races/training in.  Its an allergic reaction to the parasite which goes away after extensive washing, but with each exposure and/or with prolonged exposure, the reactions get far worse.  The parasite seems to thrive where the water is relatively stagnant and where the water temp ranges in the 66-72°F.
      • Steven Munatones discussed that in International Championship races the athletes fingernails are inspected for proper trimming and that jewelry is required to be removed to prevent injuring others.  Many races involve close quarters and what can be done to prevent athletes from injuring each other whether accidentally or intentionally.  That is another safety concern to include and have an action plan for it.
      • Warms ups @ prerace.  Many race directors hate pre event warm ups cause that's sometimes when the safety measures aren't quite in place.  Instead they encourage pre-race clinics.  
      • Karen Reeder said that if you do use Lifeguards to be picky.  Red Cross has lowered its swimming abilities standards for lifeguards which may be OK for pools, but for Open Water events, if they can't swim fast and respond strongly, they will fail.  Excellent point.  I've seen some Lifeguards pass the Red Cross practical test for skills, but the practical test doesn't include ANY amount of swimming more than maybe 5 yards.  That's terrible!!  If you do use lifeguards, make sure they have a strong swimming background.
      • Paul Asmuth - just like Shelly Taylor-Smith, he is a seven time open water champion.  He touched on cold water training.  He said about some of the myths of cold water protection such as grease providing protection, or about gaining a bunch of weight.  He's approach is that that "fat" that you put on, you have to take with you and it slows you down, and you have to supply blood to it, etc...  He suggests not simply putting on weight as a way to combat the cold water, but to train in it.  He said that if you train and exposure your body to those temperatures, you not only will allow your mind to handle those cold temperatures, but your body will actually change.  It will go through physiological changes to allow you to better handle it.  He also discussed about there being a aerobic/anaerobic range and to put your body as close to the anaerobic range so that your body can use that level of effort to generate heat, but also allow you to continue as long as necessary.
      • Marcia Cleveland discussed the need to be careful about who you pick to be on your crew for marathon swims.  There should be someone who knows your stroke, knows just by looking at you when something is "off" or when you need some encouragement.  Communication needs to be short and concise when on these swims and the crew needs to know how to communicate effectively.  They also need to know what you expect of them.  They're not mind readers.  They need to know their roles and what their requirements are.  She told of an experience where she shocked her Dad when he was on her crew and whipped out a magazine and a chair and was on duty for her.  She scolded him with language that he never heard her say before and she got him back to giving his entire attention on her.  She also discussed the need for the swimmers to experiment as much as possible with different feedings.  You need to really experiment while training to find out what things you like.  Also be aware that fresh water and salt water feeding might need to be different.  
      Tools of the Trade Panel
      • Bruce Wigo affiliated with the International Swimming Hall of Fame invented the Swim Safety Device and has manufacturers in China making them for him.  He showed this video: He suggested that these be given out instead of T-shirts at an event.  If they're purchased in bulk they can be bought at a discounted price.  The race logo and sponsors can also be printed on the device.  He suggested that these could be used on training swims on a regular basis.  If a swimmer is in trouble this can be used not only as flotation, but as identification by another party for sighting, or even in the event that someone goes under.  If it stops moving and no swimmer is found pulling it, that can be an immediate visual cue that something is terribly wrong.  I can't personally see this as something that would be used in races though.  I think the participants would not like to have to pull this thing behind them even if they knew it was for their safety.  The best case scenario would be to have a safety support boat dedicated to the swimmers, rather than to have this thing take the place of that protection.  
      • He sounded open to having them modified after receiving feedback.  (I caught up with Bruce after this panel discussion and told him of Josh's and Rob's feedback about the device, in that occasionally it would make contact with their legs, but still not so much that it hindered them in a major way, but that it seemed like a minor annoyance that if it could be refined a little more it would be perfect.  The device is designed to be long enough to be in the wake of the swimmer right behind their butt so that it is in a "pocket" and doesn't actually get dragged behind.  I think that would be worse if it actually caused drag rather than occasionally making contact with my butt, but with reduced drag)
      • Alot of discussion was placed around new ideas of technology.  Would it be possible to have timing chips that also had GPS location tracking so that race directors could track in real time where there swimmers are.  Currently there isn't that kind of technology in chips and GPS's currently are one way tracking, you would need to include outbound communication to send info back out to where the swimmers are.  But it's a great idea.  Maybe one day....
      • Steve suggested that if there were enough race directors interested that he could create a massive order for transponders (timing chips) that could be bought at a fraction of the cost from manufacturers in China.  Email him if interested.   Right now I don't think we would really need more than 100 and depending on the cost of that many we might not be able to afford it, but would need more information.
      Fran Crippen memorial 
      • Maddie Crippen took about 20 minutes to discuss Fran's life, his dreams, his accomplishments and his legacy that she wishes to continue via the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation.  Fran had a big heart and loved open water swimming.  While she was in love with swimming, Fran was fanatical.  He loved helping kids enjoy the water and love the competition.  It's unfortunate that the events surrounding his death happened, but on the other hand the positive changes for greater safety and awareness of protecting the athletes is something that can be taken as a positive change as a result of his death.  

      Sunday Morning - Best Practices discussion......

      1. Separation of Race Director from Safety Chairman - They can't be combined they should be separated as they are both very important roles that can't conceivably be handled by a single person no matter how multitasking they may be.  
      2. The Ability of the Safety Chair to cancel the event with the same amount of authority as the Race Director or Referee was open to many opinions as to whether they all together had the authority as a collaboration or individually.  I'd think that it would be a collaboration as they should all respect the safety chair's opinion, but at the same time should be a dictatorship.  The race director would be a fool to ignore the recommendation of the safety chair to cancel an event.
      3. Risk Assessment - Each event is so different and that may be a big reason why there is no single document that addresses ALL of the safety requirements/guidelines as they may or may not be applicable for every race.  So it is up to the race director and the safety chair for that event to come up with a risk assessment for the event, and then come up with a plan.  
      4. Governing Body Collaboration - There are several organizations nationally that cover Open Water Races such as: FINA, USA Swimming, USMS, USAT and more.   How can these organizations collaborate on educating race directors on how to prepare for events safely?  One suggestion that I LOVED was that a third party work with these parties to help them collaborate on a methodology of preparing races for safety.  I agree that it can't be a checklist, but the idea of a training and certification program for personnel who can be given the education in how to make those kinds of assessments and plans is a great idea!  This way the safety chair and/or race director can be better educated and certified to make those kind of decisions and plans to run a safe event!  Dale P mentioned that Steve as the Open Water Source founder be given that role.  I totally agree that he would be the very best resource to work with all of these organizations to come up with a consolidated training program.  But that would put alot of pressure on Steve and would need him to agree to take that on.  That would be a huge responsibility and require superhuman abilities and time commitments.
      5. Open Water Training - Most of the discussion at this conference has been about running a safe swim event.  But what about safe water swimming training?  About 1/100th of the time an athlete spends in the water is during the event, the other part is in training.  What are the best practices for swimming in training?  I'd have to say that the SSD is a huge step forward.  I used to swim all alone in BL last year in the early morning when Josh couldn't be there at all times.  In this case I could use the SSD, but it isn't the end all - be all.  Cause if something really bad happened such as a stroke, heart attack, or something that caused me to not be able to take a few more strokes to get on land, at least it would still act as a body marker.  
      6. My own observations about human nature that includes organizations:  "I'm right, and you're wrong".  For instance:  USLA,  Red Cross, US Heart Association  Which is the best organization for Lifesaving? Or USMS, USA Swimming, USAT  Also religions, "I'm right, you're wrong".  Why does human nature require us to degrade the efforts and truths that others have to build ourselves up.  It's very disturbing.  I'm just as guilty.  I remember kind of talking negatively about Terry Laughlin in a recent post and realized I was wrong to do that.  \
      7. Rob Butcher, Executive Director of USMS stood up and mentioned that the executive board who was also in attendance have agreed that this conference was extremely productive and that this would definitely be an annual event sponsored by USMS.  I personally have made it a goal to attend this next year.  In fact I would suggest that Josh Green attend next year preferably with Utah LMSC sponsoring his attendance, and I would be willing to pay for my own way next time.  Cause it was totally worth it for me and very beneficial!
      I had a fantastic time at this conference, I learned alot and really caught the spirit of open water safety.  I am so appreciative to the Utah LMSC for sending me to this conference and have quite a few action items to implement in making the GSL race a safer race.  First action item:  Get a board put together instead of just me and Josh.  We need more resources!  I have other things on my plate that I don't want to be a hindrance to giving the proper attention to the subject of safety in conjunction with directing the race.
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